Boy, how we needed that.
After two points in the last seven games, Preston needed a win. This really was do or die; Cardiff City and Derby County had been beaten, and this was North End’s final chance to show they could finish in the top six.
The teamsheet was met with confusion from some; Alex Neil rarely uses a 3-5-2, but with Sheffield Wednesday operating with that system under Garry Monk, the Scot chose to match up with the hosts in something of a gamble.
We highlighted before the game that Tom Barkhuizen and Seani Maguire had the potential to be dangerous in transition, especially with a driving number 10 like Alan Browne behind them. In the first half, all three looked sharp and threatening, and North End should have been out of sight.
Patrick Bauer missed a couple of chances, Maguire couldn’t turn home a Browne cross, Ryan Ledson had a shot blocked after fine play and Barkhuizen somehow fired wide after racing clean through on goal.
The first half display drew mixed emotions; North End looked so much better than in recent games, but hadn’t turned pressure into a goal – and were made to pay when Jacob Murphy put the hosts in front.
That familiar sinking feeling returned. Profligacy in front of goal had been punished, and having struggled in front of goal in recent games, it felt like a gargantuan task was facing North End following Murphy’s opener.
However, Neil got it exactly right. His use of substitutions has been criticised of late, particularly for coming too late. This time, he seized the initiative by boldly hooking Ledson and star man Ben Pearson. On came Daniel Johnson and Brad Potts, and the game started to change. Potts added real athleticism and drive in the middle, whilst Johnson used the ball brilliantly and was always looking to move it forward.
Then, Neil really went for it. Off came Seani Maguire and Andrew Hughes, which meant Joe Rafferty switching to left wing back, Barkhuizen to right wing back with Jayden Stockley and Scott Sinclair up top.
Honesty time on this one; I wasn’t sure Stockley was the right change. I’ve been critical of Stockley in the past, feeling that he doesn’t contribute quite as much as fans think, but I have to hold my hands up here and say that Neil got it exactly right.
Stockley immediately flicked on for Sinclair, who showed exactly what Preston had been lacking up top – poise and composure – by firing past Joe Wildsmith. After a late Wednesday goal had been ruled out for offside, Stockley struck from long range to put North End in front.
Neil had got it right. His two attacking substitutes had come on and changed the game. There was even time for another substitute to get in on the act, as Potts sealed a 3-1 win with an inch-perfect curling finish from the edge of the box.
This was a night of Preston proving doubters wrong; us included. Neil proved that he can use his substitutions to great effect, Sinclair proved that he can still have a huge impact despite a disappointing start, Stockley proved us wrong by winning headers, creating a goal and scoring one. Potts is a player who has been unpopular for most of the season, but – just as we wrote last week – is showing up with big performances.
Neil was also right to go with the 3-5-2. The system was working perfectly in the first half, but individual moments were costing us. He stuck with it, and he received his rewards with all three points.
The hard work isn’t done yet; Preston face a tricky end to the season with Nottingham Forest, Brentford, Birmingham City and Bristol City to come. It’s still a big ask for North End to make it into the top six, but with the season on the line, Neil and his players came up with a big performance, giving fans much-needed hope once again.